Sunday, July 15, 2012

Will the intrepid academics’ Union fall to a familiar Trojan invasion?

vihaga-pereraAt the point of writing this, the trade union action of the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) has lapped into its second week. While the movement testified to “positive openings” in their initial meeting with the governmental delegate, this by no means suggests that an easy solution is at hand to their submissions which have been on the negotiation tables for the past two years. What is popularly seen as an issue related to “salary hikes”, according to the FUTA, is a wider and sustained effort at safeguarding “national university” structures. The struggle, therefore, has opened out a discursive front which also makes the need for higher fund allocations, progressive education policy which, in place, would earn a place of prestige to the academy, the concerns of their agitation. These points are sustained in the FUTA website, her Facebook page and other media briefings held over the past few weeks.
Rumour is rich that the Non-Academic and Support Staff of the national universities - whose trade union manoeuvre was withdrawn a week prior to the FUTA strike - will resume their struggle in the coming week (unless it has already resumed by the time this submission goes into print). Their strike, as you may recall, was based on anomalies in salary scales etc which, in its third week, was withdrawn following a compromise reached with the intervention of a powerful governmental magnet. However, discrepancies regarding their payments have infuriated these unions to resort to some form of collective action yet again.

University system
I have in the past made this space the forum to raise numerous issues that prevail in the university system. However, to say the least, the crises faced by the national university today are at a precarious and debilitating state than they have ever been in recent years. The possible Non-Academic and support Staff strike only indicates more uncertainty in the already stalled academic programmes. Contrary to the notion promoted by some pundits - pundits largely known to have strong governmental links - one should by no means be hasty in unloading the weight of blame on these collective agents at strike. An observer may see that the will for discussion and meaningful dialogue have often been found lacking among the governmental ranks in question. Dialogue and diplomacy, at crucial points, have been the least used of tools in the state kit bag. On the contrary, the greater weight had been 18-2given by top chairs responsible for the subject to non-commitment, abuse, duplicity, coercion and the will to divide oppositional activism. 
On the noon of the current FUTA strike, the FUTA Facebook page reported the intimidating death threats received by its President Dr. Nirmal Devasiri. This threat incidentally, was the second of its sort within the space of a few days, and adds to the now notorious “visit” Devasiri’s neighbourhood and house had received by two individuals who claimed to be agents of the Defence Ministry. Of course, in a subsequent phone conversation the Secretary to this Ministry is said to have dismissed the possibility of such compelling behaviour by his institute. Yet, the will to use coercion and intimidating tactics against the FUTA president only unveils that the higher education crisis has gone beyond the point of being solely a “round table” negotiation in gentlemanly suits. 

No concrete proof 
Whether wishy-washy promises, impromptu claims, lethargic agreements (which, even at the point of contract, are known to be mere “empty words” alone) and intimidation will work for any party or stakeholder at the current point of issues is a fact to be carefully considered. Though we have no concrete proof - but only suggestive insinuations - as to who threatened Dr. Devasiri, one aspect is clear enough. As Devasiri himself had testified to last week’s ‘Lankadeepa’ (Sunday edition) those that threatened him are clearly a group “who are against the FUTA trade union move”. What Devasiri means by this oracular statement is clear to anyone in tune with the currency of the times, where much unidentified coercion, threatening and nabbing are at play. But, the crux is as to whether such goonism can unbuckle the collective impetus of the FUTA; and as to whether a thug’s arm can be the more progressive “option”, now that the crisis has rotted and infested this deep.
In my opinion, the FUTA demands are ones, a farsighted and welfare-oriented educational policy cannot overlook. Chief among the FUTA battle cries is the need for the allocation of 6% of the Gross Production for higher education; and this, too, on a gradual basis. The concern with the infrastructure and the sustainment of the national university calls for higher funds and suitable increments in salary. The FUTA has also submitted the need for active university participation in educational policy. When I first came across the FUTA documentation of their “concerns”, I was immediately reminded of a line which K. Jayathilake gives one of his characters - coincidentally, a young lecturer - in his collection of short stories, “Atheeranaya” (Non-Decision) published in 1966. In the story titled “Guruvaraya, Shishyava Saha Geheniya” (Teacher, Female Student and Woman), the protagonist Vidyabhooshana says that “politics should be the kid of education” even though the inverse had taken root (p.11). The FUTA activism, perhaps, can best be alluded to as a rise from slumber (by the academy) in addressing some of the key areas in education policy and implementation which, for decades, have been neglected, under-attended and left to the whim and fancy of lukewarm politicians.
The crises pervading the university structure will not be resolved easily; nor should one expect them to be. The shrewd and tempered strategist in the government will bounce back with its own “mystery delivery” now that the FUTA has proved mettle. In the “political exchange” of the ongoing struggle the FUTA and the other stakeholders of the university structure have to be more than cautious; and patient, too. The state requires only one loose limb to topple the great Achilles that it faces now, for the collective action of the FUTA and its proxies is as organized and as ideologically backed as a struggle in recent times has been. But, not to be blinded by what’s romantic in one’s own weave is more than a statement to bear in mind. In spite of its own heroic dictates to the cameras of national media, I am told that there is much being done by the state to infiltrate the union action with lures and rewards of sorts. It needs only just one Ephialtes - and the FUTA has to be concrete against cheap temptation.

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